Targeted DNA Testing for Family History

Diahan Southard

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If your current DNA matches aren’t getting the job done, try targeted DNA testing. This family history research strategy can help you put relatives on your family tree.

My daughter’s sixth grade science teacher is big on group projects. Every quarter my daughter gets a new group, and together, the four of them have to complete everything from experiments to worksheets. During the first quarter, her group often had group video calls in the evenings and they would happily work together to finish their homework.

But that all changed a couple weeks ago when she got a new group of four. Let’s just say this new group isn’t as interested in group chats or sharing the homework load. So, for my daughter, she has learned that sometimes group work is when you do all the work, and the group takes all the credit.

Maybe you feel that way about your group of DNA matches. Are they just not pulling their weight?

Why do targeted DNA testing

Sometimes your DNA research feels like it is just humming along. You have a good group of DNA matches, and you are using what you know about shared centimorgans and what your matches know about their family and you are making progress towards your goals.

But sometimes you get stuck.

You get stuck because this whole DNA and genealogy thing is a group effort, and well, sometimes your “group” just isn’t contributing in the ways you need it to. Sometimes they aren’t writing back to your emails or posting a family tree. But sometimes it is just because the right person hasn’t been tested.

For example, let’s say you have narrowed your search for your 2X great grandfather down to a group of Wilsons who lived in North Carolina. But, they had lots of kids who had lots of kids, and it is really hard to tell which one is your ancestor. With your current group of DNA matches being all 4th cousins, there really isn’t any more they can tell you about your relationship to this family.

You need more matches.

That means you may need to enter the realm of targeted testing. Targeted testing is where you find the living descendants of the family you think are connected to and ask them to take a DNA test.

How to do targeted DNA testing

Of course, what this means is that you will likely have to research the descendants of your most likely ancestors and identify their living kin. Then you’ll have to approach a stranger, once you find their contact information, and ask him or her to take a DNA test. Here are three tips for that first contact:

  1. Tell the story. You need to come up with a very succinct way to help your potential cousin understand what it is you are trying to accomplish. Write out two to three (compelling!) sentences that explain why this ancestor has been so elusive.
  2. Help them see their role. You need to clearly communicate that it is pretty amazing that they, this living person today, can help you unlock a mystery that is decades old. Help them feel that they have the particular mix of DNA that could likely provide answers where traditional documents just can’t.
  3. Tell them the risks. It is oh-so-important that your cousin fully understands what DNA testing can do: reveal relationships. You need to be very clear that taking a DNA test will reveal any biological relationships they have. You may want to download a consent form like the one posted in the saved links at the Facebook Group Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques. This will help facilitate this conversation with your potential DNA cousin and make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.

Basically, when you feel like your group isn’t pulling its weight and giving you the information you need, you can create your own group of DNA matches with targeted testing.

Too bad it isn’t that easy for my daughter. This is going to be a long quarter…

Before you test more relatives

A note of caution: asking someone to take a DNA test is not something that should be taken lightly. Consider what you can learn without involving additional people as well as the ramifications for you and them that even just the conversation about testing may bring.

Connect better with your current DNA matches

Whether or not you try targeted testing now, I recommend you try (again) to communicate (more) effectively with the matches you already have. It’s tricky, I know. What do you say? What if they don’t respond? It can feel awkward and intimidating. Kind of like a first date.

That’s exactly what it’s like, and that’s how you should think about reaching out to your DNA matches. We explain it in our guide, Talk to Your DNA Matches Like a First Date. Help yourself to a free copy! 

Get free guide to contacting DNA matches

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<a href="" target="_self">Diahan Southard</a>

Diahan Southard

As founder and CEO of Your DNA Guide, Diahan Southard has been teaching people how to find family history answers in their DNA for several years, and she's been in the genetic genealogy field since its infancy. Diahan teaches internationally, writes for popular magazines, consults with leading testing companies, is author of Your DNA Guide–The Book, and producer of Your DNA Guide–the Academy, an online learning experience.


  1. Rebecca Schuster

    This article explains the pain and problems all of us diehard pro genealogy researchers have experienced with DNA.

  2. toni

    Gray print on white background is extremely hard to read. I skip most of the newsletter and the web site is no easier so I skip most of that, too. I will probably unsubscribe because there is little point in being subscribed to something I can’t read.

    • Molly K Hartin

      I absolutely agee. I have to copy and paste into Word and change the script. Are we too green to pay for ink that we, the difabled, can read easily?

  3. Christine

    For those who have a difficult time reading due to type color and background … have you tried hitting Control A? It selects all the text and surrounds them with blue background, turning the text white. Is the text any easier to read that way?


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